Grief Journal: Thanksgiving

Our first Thanksgiving without him. 

To be honest, my son didn’t care much for Thanksgiving. A card-carrying member of the Picky Eater Club, there wasn’t much on the traditional Thanksgiving menu he liked—certainly not the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and gravy part. Rolls and carrots were about the extent of what he’d eat. 

What he did love was the fact of five entire “stay home” days with NO SCHOOL! He could sleep in, stay up later, play video games, and hang out. He was never as happy as when he was home in his pjs with the family. 

That was his favorite part of Thanksgiving—family. When I was going through his things, I found this picture:

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His sense of humor is certainly obvious (his Poppy puns), but you can tell he really knows his subjects and that they matter to him (his brother’s slightly annoyed expression, his sister jumping into frame, my excited smile). He drew himself as an artist and creator, which he absolutely was. 

And in the picture, he’s surrounded and supported by his family, which he always was. 

We miss him more than I have words to say. And while I had much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, not least the love and support we continue to feel from our friends and family, I’d trade just about anything to have him back in the circle of our loving arms. To surround him again with the love and support we always tried to give him. To have that bright, shining soul at the center of our family. 

Because we feel the absence of his light. The circle of our family is not complete, and never again will be. It is a break that cannot and will never heal. We are still a family, but not the family in that picture.

Grief Journal: Four Months Ago

Four months.

On this day, four months ago, my son died.

These are not words I ever thought I’d write. Some day, far in the future, my son should have written them about me. He’d be sad, because as I know, no matter how old you are, it hurts to lose your mom. But at some point, we all become orphans. Losing our parents is a part of life, part of the natural cycle as we’ve come to know it in the 21st century. 

We aren’t supposed to lose our children. This isn’t the Middle Ages or even Victorian times, when disease, hunger and the need for child labor meant a kid was lucky to survive past the age of five. No, this is modern-day America. I found this from the organization ChildTrends: “Life expectancy for newborns has increased substantially over the past 80 years, from 57 years for infants born in 1929 to 79 years for infants born in 2015. Around 1 percent of children born in 2014 (the latest year for which such estimates are available) will die before they reach the age of 20, compared with 11 percent of children born in the early 1930s.”

One percent. Sounds pretty reasonable, unless you are a parent whose child is one of the one percent.

If one percent of children are going to die, and child death has always been with us, why is there no English word for parents who have lost their children? A quick Google search shows this lack is the subject of multiple articles, posts and threads. Plenty of speculation exists around why this is so, and there even some proposals for appropriate words, yet  there is no single English word like “orphan” or “widow/er” to describe parents who have lost a child. Instead we say,  “grieving parents” or “bereaved parents.” 

I have a few other phrases: 

  • “Parents whose hearts have been ripped from their bodies.” 
  • “Parents whose arms feel empty.” 
  • “Parents whose souls endlessly mourn their missing piece.”
  • “Parents who get up every day so they can ‘fake it until they make it’ for each other and their surviving kids.” 
  • “Parents who are drowning in grief and sorrow.” 
  • “Parents who will never again be whole in this life time.”
  • “Parents whose families have been blown apart and are trying to put the pieces back together, except one is missing and healing is painful and sometimes even feels futile.”
  • “Parents who would trade almost anything to go back in time.”
  • “Parents who miss their child’s face and sweet laugh the way they’d miss oxygen were it suddenly taken away.”

I realize I am a lucky parent, because I still have two amazing children. People say, think about them. Focus on them. And believe me, I do. But focusing on them doesn’t negate the terrible, awful loss of their brother, because they are missing him, too. After all, there’s no word to describe someone who lost a sibling, either. 

Witnessing my son and daughter’s sorrow, and knowing how this will follow them through their lives, is a terrible part of my own grief because being a mom—nurturing, supporting and helping to develop happy, successful human beings—is my most important purpose in life, one I joyfully chose three times. And I failed. One of my children is gone. 

What’s the word that encompasses that? Maybe that’s the problem. This kind of loss is just too big for a language like English to describe. 

Maybe there is no word that can illuminate the depth of grief I feel now, four months after my son died. 

Four months.

Grief Journal: Bear

This is Bear, Beary Bear if we’re being formal. He was my son’s lovey and is now one of my most precious possessions.

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I bought Bear when I was pregnant, and he was there to greet my son when we brought him home from the hospital. We have hundreds of pictures of my son growing up, and Bear makes an appearance in many of them. 

My son slept with Bear literally every night of his life. He took Bear outside to play, on car rides, to restaurants, and to the doctor. He loved Bear. Bear helped calm him down. Bear provided comfort. Bear was, in a real way, his friend and companion. And Bear was just his; no sharing.

You can tell he loved Bear just by looking. Most adored loveys end up fairly ratty after 10 years, but not Bear. Partly this was due to a reluctance to let Bear be washed too much, and partly it was because my son took care of Bear in a way he didn’t always demonstrate with other things in his life.

Bear went to school long past the time other kids brought stuffed animals. Other kids’ teasing didn’t really bother my son much, but he learned to keep Bear in his backpack. I offered at one point to cut off a piece of Bear’s lining, so my son could have a piece of Bear in his pocket to self-soothe, but he couldn’t handle the idea of his beloved Bear being cut up in any way.

I could always gauge my son’s mood based on Bear. If Bear was close by, he was probably a bit anxious. If he was actively rubbing Bear on his cheek,  something was wrong. Hugs, love and help were in order.

That terrible day, after weeping with my husband and my other two children, there came a point when I was sitting on the sofa, shell shocked. Suddenly, I sat up. Where was Bear?

I tore through the house, looking. Finally, I found Bear, 10 feet away from the spot my son died. I fell sobbing to my knees, thinking how scared and alone my son must have felt, not to have his Bear with him, in reach. It’s a thought that still haunts me.

Bear accompanied my son on his last journey, to the funeral home. He lay where he always had when my son slept, tucked under his arm. But I couldn’t let Bear go. I told Charlie that Mommy needed Bear more than he did now. I know he would have understood.

Bear sits on my beside table. I don’t sleep with Bear anymore, like I did for the first few weeks, but I find an inexpressible comfort in hugging Bear when I feel sad or anxious. I can rub my face along Bear’s soft head and still smell that little boy smell, the scent of my son’s skin. I’m not sure what I will do when I can’t smell that any more. 

But meanwhile, I have Bear, a tangible reminder that my son was here, and loved, and loving. 

Grief Journal: Crying in Public

I cry every day, usually in the shower. Some women pamper themselves—I cry. Actually, that’s probably HOW I pamper myself, these days. Crying is a luxury.

But other things make me cry, too. I can’t really speak about my son’s death without tearing up or leaking slowly. Sometimes I can, but 95% of the time, I cry, quiet tears slipping down my face and my voice quavering without ever really losing it and tipping over into full-blown wailing.

This is understandable. I cut myself slack. Most people do, too, even if they sometimes seem a bit panicked at what exactly to do with this person, crying in public. (Have you ever noticed we don’t publicly cry in American society? It tends to freak people out, a bit.)

The crying that surprises me, though, is the crying triggered by something seemingly random. 

Tonight, I was driving down I-90, headed into Chicago for a business meeting. I passed the Shaumberg “Medieval Times” and burst into tears. We went there last year at Spring Break and my son absolutely adored it. He declared their tomato soup starter “the best ever” and bugged me to ask for the recipe. He cheered himself hoarse for our knight and was beside himself with excitement when “our guy” won. We spent weeks after that looking up how one trains to become a Medieval Times knight, and I think it joined his roster of possible career choices. He had such a blast, and I cried, thinking of that happy, excited boy I miss like I would miss air were I blasted into space. 

Other times I have cried:

  • Scrolling through the cable guide, when I passed the live Overwatch gaming finals, or a rerun of PACIFIC RIM.
  • In Target, every time I see a toy he would have loved.
  • In the grocery store, when I automatically reach for the protein bars we used to feed him in an effort to help him keep on weight.
  • In the bookstore, when I saw the new release in the WARRIOR CATS series of books. 
  • Every time I find a LEGO any where in the house.
  • Seeing all the kids headed to school in the morning, or home in the afternoon. 

You get the idea. Even though it’s been nearly four months, his loss still hits me like a punch in the gut. It’s like I’ve been stabbed through the heart, but the knife is still there and someone sometimes jiggles the knife, just for emphasis. 

It hurts. So I cry.

Grief Journal: What To Do If a Colleague Suffers a Loss

It’s weird when a colleague suffers a personal tragedy. It’s like crossing the streams in GHOSTBUSTERS—the professional and the personal mix, and you’re never quite sure what to do. Or if some terrifying monster might appear if you say he wrong thing.

When death is involved, it’s some how worse. As a culture, death isn’t a subject we handle very well to begin with — we prefer to deny and avoid, as if by pretending death doesn’t happen, we won’t catch it. As if death is some how a personal failure, a lack of good faith effort. We will all have family and friends that die as we move through our life, some quite close. And of course, each of us will die one day, too. Yet, like toddlers, we think if we don’t see it, it can’t see us…

As bad as we are at finding the right things to say in our personal lives (subject of another post), we are that much worse with knowing what to say to someone we know only professionally. Even if we are quite friendly, or have known them for many years, the sudden intrusion of such a personal thing as grief makes us very uncomfortable when it happens to someone we interact with from 8 to 5 on weekdays. 

So here’s a helpful tip if you find yourself in the situation of knowing someone in your professional sphere who has suffered a personal loss:

Just effing say something. 

You don’t have to have the right words—because believe me, there are no right words—but you need to acknowledge that they have had something incredibly shitty happen that has completely upended their life.

“I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.”

That’s it. That’s all you have to say. No one expects more of you. Most likely, the grieving person won’t want to discuss the loss in a business setting (because, tears) so you’re off the hook for any expectations of deep emotional support. 

Because believe me, your silence hurts. I was sitting in a business meeting at the moment my son died, and not one of those people has ever even acknowledged my loss. Call me petty, but I’m not exactly inspired to work on their business any more.

I don’t expect them to be as lovely as the clients who sent flowers to the funeral, and cards, and who pulled me into an office the next time they saw me and cried. (This was the majority of clients, by the way). Or as thoughtful as the past coworkers who showed up at the funeral. Or as amazing as my current coworkers, who made sure I didn’t have to think about work at all, and who have been a source of much strength and comfort. That level of kindness is a grace, and so very humbling and appreciated. 

But you know what? I do expect that if I’ve worked with you for many years, you could at least say, “I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.” 

Because last time I checked, I’m a human being. And so are you. 

Grief Journal: How Many Kids Do You Have?

I don’t know how to answer the question, “How many kids do you have?”

The hard question used to be, “How many times have you been pregnant?” Of course, this was usually asked in a medical setting and was something I was prepared for. I could give the answer—10 times, I’ve been pregnant 10 times—and quickly provide the answer for the follow up question, which is “How many times have you given birth?”, with “twice.”

Infertility is a long, hard road for many. Before my oldest was born, I was told I had a less than 7% chance of having a baby. Although born 10 weeks early, he thrived against all the odds. What a miracle!

Imagine my surprise when three years later—at the advanced age of 43—I was pregnant again, with a baby that seemed determined to stick. And so I had two miracles—two healthy, smart, wonderful boys. My husband and I used to say that they must be here for a reason, because the odds were so against them being here at all.

Then our tiny daughter joined our family after my sister died in a car accident, and here I was—the woman who was told she would likely never have children—a mother of three amazing children.

So I never minded being asked, “How many kids do you have?” I’ve answered it, gladly, as over the years the tally grew: “One boy.” “Two boys.” “Two boys and a girl.”

Now, I dread that question.

This week I was at a business dinner with some new clients. Inevitably, the question came up. “How many kids do you have?” I managed to quite steadily answer, “Two. A boy and a girl. Ages 14 and 6, eighth and first grade.” Then as fast as I could, I turned the conversation to someone else. 

I didn’t cry. I don’t think they even got a hint that there was anything wrong. 

But inside, I was crying. Inside, I was screaming, I have three kids! Just one of them I can’t talk about anymore. I can’t make you laugh by sharing his funny quips and stories. I can’t brag on how incredibly talented and smart he is. I can’t tell you how loving and cuddly he still is. Because he isn’t any of those things any more. He isn’t here, and it’s not okay to tell you that at a business dinner, or in casual conversation. And I don’t want your pity or awkwardness or condolences.

I just want him back. I want to have three kids. 

Grief Journal: The Dead Visit My Dreams

My son visited me in a dream last night.

I often dream of dead people—my sister, my mother, friends and family. In my dreams, they are themselves, and dead. I know they are dead, because in my dreams, I always know I am dreaming. 

After my mom died, she visited me over a period of months, although she only spoke to me directly once. As was usual with my mom, she was busy helping others and knew I didn’t need her the same way. On her last visit, she told me she wouldn’t return, but she looked at me with such love. I’ve carried that feeling with me ever since. 

After my son died, I felt that I wouldn’t see him. Maybe because I think of these dreams as a sort of grace—whether bestowed by the universe or my own subconscious—and I don’t know if I deserve to feel that with my beloved boy. I still feel as if I failed him, so badly that I don’t deserve peace or comfort.

Yet he came anyway. 

In the dream, he walked up to the table where a grown-up version of his brother and I were having lunch in a strange city. He looked just as he had last time I saw him—gangly, skinny, all boy yet with the shape of the man he was going to become starting to form—except for some reason, his head was shaved. Just as he did in life, he leaned into me.

“Hi, Mom,” he said. 

I turned and hugged him. I said how glad I was to see him. I asked if he was enjoying being dead; was he having fun? Was he okay? Was he being taken care of? 

He shrugged and laughed and in the way of dreams, we all got up to leave. He ran out the restaurant door. I called to him to wait, oh please, wait. And when I got out the door, he was gone. And then I woke up. 

I don’t know how to feel. In the dream, I was so happy to see him. I never got to say goodbye in life, but this wasn’t about that because in dreams, the dead call the shots. I didn’t tell him I’m sorry. I didn’t say “I love you.” I didn’t ask what he was thinking. I just let him know how happy I was to see him, and did what he called “that Mom thing.”

Was he really there? Was it just subconscious wish fulfillment? I don’t know. 

I just know how much I long to hold him, just one more time. How much I wish he were still here. How much I hope that, wherever he is, he is happy and loved. And having fun.